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Story: History and historians

New Zealand’s human history may be comparatively short, but its unique characteristics mean there is a great richness in the country’s stories for historians to explore.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Governor George Bowen and Gustavus von Tempsky in a detail of a carved pou of Tītokowaru

Story Summary

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Recording history before 1900

Māori traditionally recorded their history in carvings, oratory and waiata (songs). After Europeans arrived, some recorded the historical knowledge of Māori, and a few Māori recorded their own history. One example was Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke, who was employed by Governor George Grey to write down Māori history.

In the European community, British history was what was taught, primarily focusing on politics, ‘great men’ and the expansion of the British Empire. New Zealand history was left to amateurs outside universities.

The first full history was The story of New Zealand (1859), written by A. S. Thomson, an army surgeon. Over the next 40 years military histories, some Māori histories and political histories were written. William Pember Reeves’s influential general history, The long white cloud: Ao Tea Roa, was published in 1898.

The first half of the 20th century – amateur history

There was a widespread belief that Māori were a dying race, and so their culture and history should be preserved. The Polynesian Society was founded in 1892 to record and publish Māori history.

The 50th anniversaries of European settlement of the country and the foundation of provinces and towns sparked an interest in the history of the pioneers, and many local histories were produced by amateur historians. Academics were still mainly interested in British history, but a few began to look at New Zealand.

Rise of academic history – 1940 to 1970

Many books were published in celebration of New Zealand’s centenary in 1940, many of which praised the country’s European pioneers. The official centennial project produced 11 books and a magazine series, written by leading historians and social commentators. Soon after, the government sponsored a project to record the history of New Zealand in the Second World War, which produced 44 books.

Academic historians began looking at New Zealand’s colonial history from a new, more questioning perspective, and there was more interest in race relations. Some new general histories were written, notably by Keith Sinclair and W. H. Oliver, as well as local histories and well-researched biographies.

The growth of history – since 1970

As more people went to university, history departments grew. There were also more professional historians who were not academics – Michael King, for example. They catered to a growing interest in New Zealand history in society. In a similar trend, many museums focused more on the country’s history.

The government continued to be involved in writing history, including official histories of government departments and, after the arrival of the internet, online projects such as Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and NZHistory.

Newly established organisations for historians included the New Zealand Historical Association and Te Pouhere Kōrero, a group for Māori historians.

New perspectives on history since 1970

There was a growth in new ways of looking at history, including non-official history, social history, oral history and the history of people who had been ignored by the traditional history, such as women and Māori.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'History and historians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/history-and-historians (accessed 22 November 2017)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014